‘There are a lot of myths surrounding the film,” said producer Paul Brownstein, “but I guess that just goes along with everything surrounding Dick and Liz.”
The Dick and Liz in question, of course, are Burton and Taylor; the film is the nearly forgotten 1964 version of “Hamlet” that starred Burton and was directed by John Gielgud, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.
The first myth about this “Hamlet” is that, despite its having been screened for just two days (in 1,000 theaters) when it was first released, it was lost.
In fact, three prints exist of the film, and, soon after Brownstein announced earlier this year that he was negotiating with distribution companies for a re-release, he learned that the film’s negative was stored in the vaults of Warner Bros., the original distributor. Brownstein, who now owns the film, secured that negative, from which remastering work is being done. Last month, Brownstein announced that the film would be screened in London on April 28 as the finale screening in a yearlong Shakespeare festival at the National Film Theatre. Brownstein is negotiating for theatrical runs of “Hamlet” in legitimate theaters on London’s West End and on Broadway, as well as a subsequent roadshow tour of U.S. cities including Los Angeles.
Another myth, Brownstein said, is that the film, which used primitive technology to tape a stage performance and transfer the footage onto film, is unwatchable.
Gielgud’s staging, which ran at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway for 138 performances, was recorded on June 30 and July 1, 1964, by seven electronic cameras located in the theater’s orchestra area. It was the first experiment in what was known as Electronovision, one of several heralded technologies (including Cinerama) in the early ‘60s to woo audiences back to movie theaters, away from television. Electronovision, which transferred a television camera image to 35-millimeter film, attempted to create the illusion of putting moviegoers in a seat at the Lunt-Fontanne.
The electronic transfer to black-and-white film, using ‘60s technology, resulted in a dark image and muddied soundtrack. But despite the darkness of the print, Brownstein insists, “it’s not unwatchable--Burton’s performance is just mesmerizing.”
Nevertheless, the film was hastily pulled from theaters and has languished for 30 years, unseen.
Five years ago, Burton’s widow, Sally, found some rusting film cans while cleaning out the cellar of their home in Celingy, Switzerland.
“Richard was fairly careless with his possessions,” said Sally Burton, by phone from her London office, “and at first I thought it was just part of the general junk down there. The family story was that the film was lost.”
Noticing that the cans contained complete reels of 35-millimeter film, she took them to British filmmaker Tony Palmer, for whom she had worked as production assistant. Palmer, she said, not only confirmed that it was the 1964 “Hamlet,” but that it was in viewable condition.
On the suggestion of Sam Wanamaker, the late actor and developer of London’s Globe Theatre, she donated the print to the British Film Institute--only to discover that BFI already had two prints of the film, donated by Burton in the early ‘70s. Although BFI has occasionally screened “Hamlet” at benefits and for scholars, the only U.S. showing of any part of the film since 1964 was when clips were included in a 1989 “South Bank Show” TV special on the Bravo Channel documenting famous “Hamlet” performances.
While requesting permission to use Burton’s image in a television program he was remastering, Brownstein learned from his widow in February, 1994, that the filmed “Hamlet” still existed. Brownstein, who specializes in remastering and packaging TV variety and comedy shows, purchased the rights from her and began the hunt for a distributor.
Soon after, Valerie Douglas, Burton’s personal manager, told Brownstein of the existence of the film negative in Warners’ vaults. “He had tried to get the negative back in 1981,” Brownstein said, “but didn’t have the paperwork to prove that he owned it.” Brownstein, with Sally Burton’s help, had the documentation and obtained the negative. According to the producer, neither Sally Burton nor the British Film Institute had known of the negative’s existence.
The myth of the lost “Hamlet” stems from the original deal struck with Broadway producer Alexander H. Cohen, Electronovision Inc., distributor Warner Bros. and Burton’s company, Atlantic Programmes Ltd. The film, it was agreed, would screen a total of four times over Sept. 23 and 24, 1964, in 1,000 U.S. theaters (including the Pantages in Hollywood). Thereafter, all prints would be destroyed, and after 90 days, ownership would revert from Electronovision to Atlantic Programmes.
Though the “never-to-be-seen-again” warning was one audience hook in 1964, a bigger one was the celebrity of Burton, whose marriage to Elizabeth Taylor during the Toronto tryout run of “Hamlet” had brought immense attention to the production.
“There were bodyguards in the hallways, and on the roof during rehearsals,” recalled Hume Cronyn, who played Polonius and won a Tony Award for best supporting actor in the production.
“I had worked with both of them earlier on ‘Cleopatra,’ so I saw this amazing phenomenon everyone called ‘Dickenliz’ from the start. The hordes of press and fans were a bit of a nightmare for them and the whole cast. But Liz handled it very well, and Richard (known for his temper) never stepped out of line.”
Gielgud and Burton’s stage conception was a “Hamlet” in rehearsal dress, “a startling idea at the time,” Cronyn said, “but it wasn’t fully thought through. If you have a guy in sneakers and jeans also wearing a sword belt, his get-up becomes as distracting as the most elaborate costume. “
After a critical trouncing in Toronto, the New York reception was more mixed. The New York Times’ Howard Taubman acclaimed the “electrical power and sweeping virility” of Burton’s performance, while the Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr stated that “Mr. Burton is without feeling.”
The Electronovision filmed version cost under $1 million, grossed $4 million, and was dubbed “a qualified success” by Los Angeles Times film critic Philip K. Scheuer. Although Scheuer complained about “the smallness and the dimness of the figures in long shot” and how the whole 3 1/2-hour film “began to take some toll,” he remarked that the soundtrack was a “particular joy.”
The soundtrack, sadly, will require the most extensive digital remastering work. “The sound, especially the surface noise, the crackling effect, has to be cleaned up a lot,” said Brownstein.
The task of cleaning up the image belongs to Sean Coughlin, who has been restoring films for the Turner Movie Classics cable channel (no agreement has yet been reached for the channel to air “Hamlet” after its theatrical run.)
“The image we’re able to achieve now with current technology is better than when the movie first appeared,” Coughlin said. “The challenge with ‘Hamlet’ will be to alter the black-and-white contrasts, to get a beautiful enhanced image.”